Federal Appeals Court Tells Porn Copyright Trolls To Just Stop It Already

While you may — and probably do — hate your cable and Internet provider, a number of these companies have been doing one thing right over the last few years, by refusing to hand over user information to copyright troll lawyers looking to extort money out of people for allegedly sharing porn over the Internet. Yesterday, a federal appeals court handed down a ruling that could send a number of these trolls back under the bridges whence they came.

The case at hand goes back several years and involves more than 1,000 users for whom the copyright trolls have IP addresses but no names or physical addresses. The porn lawyers want that info so they can contact these customers and say “Your IP address is associated with a BitTorrented copy of [fill in the blank with the title of a porn movie you wouldn’t want your grandmother to know you watched]. Pay us [exorbitant amount of money] or we will sue. Your love of things porny will be a matter of public record and your grandmother will have a coronary when she hears you downloaded [porn whose title is so embarrassing you probably wouldn’t even tell your close friends you watched it].”

A number of ISPs have fought subpoenas from porn lawyers out to connect the dots between IP addresses and real identities, and some have been successful in shutting the trolls down. In 2012, Comcast referred to the trolls as shake down artists looking to earn a quick buck, and a court subsequently agreed.

However, that same year, a different judge — who was reportedly a former lobbyist for the RIAA, so you know he’s probably not too keen on piracy — actually sided with the trolls and ordered the ISPs, including Cox, Comcast, Bright House, AT&T, and Verizon, to turn over the requested info, potentially setting a precedent that would allow porn trolls to sue thousands of completely unrelated consumers in one “John Doe” action.

The ISPs appealed, hoping to stop this suit and preempt other mass John Doe suits from being filed in the future.

And yesterday, a D.C.-based federal appeals court ruled [PDF] that the troll had demonstrated no direct links between the 1,058 Doe defendants other than they each had at some point over the course of an extended period of time allegedly shared the same file over BitTorrent.

“AF Holdings [the plaintiff, a company with ties to noted porn troll Prenda Law] has provided no reason to think that the Doe defendants it named in this lawsuit were ever participating in the same swarm at the same time,” reads the ruling. “Instead, it has simply set forth snapshots of a precise moment in which each of these 1,058 Does allegedly shared the copyrighted work — snapshots that span a period of nearly five months.”

The court said that two individuals who downloaded the same file five months apart are “exceedingly unlikely to have had any interaction with one another whatsoever,” and that “Their only relationship is that they used the same protocol to access the same work.”

An analogy was made to two individuals who play at the same blackjack table at different times.

“They may have won the same amount of money, employed the same strategy, and perhaps even played with the same dealer, but they have still engaged in entirely separate transactions,” writes the court, which vacated the lower court’s order.

The court also wasn’t convinced that AF Holdings had any intent to actually pursue legal actions against each of the individuals for which it sought account information.

“We think it quite obvious that AF Holdings could not possibly have had a good faith belief that it could successfully sue the overwhelming majority of the 1,058 John Doe defendants in this district,” explains the court. “In seeking such information, AF Holdings clearly abused the discovery process.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of several groups to support the ISPs in their fight against the trolls, called yesterday’s ruling a “crushing blow” for copyright trolls.

“This decision is a crucial victory,” said EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry in a statement. “We are thrilled that a higher court has recognized that it is unfair to sue thousands of people at once, in a court far from home, based on nothing more than an allegation that they joined a BitTorrent swarm.”

[via TorrentFreak]